Unemployment and the meaning of human rights

Originally published at The Benfell Blog. Please leave any comments there.

While the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is considered a non-binding document, I have argued that it is binding upon the United States, and as it has become very clear that the unemployed are to be demonized and that our plight should be ignored, there is a dissonance to be reconciled.

Because, as I have pointed out before, article 23 of the Declaration reads:

  • (1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.

  • (2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.

  • (3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.

  • (4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

How is it that the United States, which adopted the Declaration on December 10, 1948, and since reaffirmed its commitment to the Declaration (apparently, judging from the URL, on April 27, 2009), can simply leave the unemployed to the cold winds of fate?

The answer lies in a process of denying the humanity of an “other” group or individual. If we are not human, then we are not entitled to the rights guaranteed under the Universal Declaration. The United States began this way, brutally counting African-Americans, Indians, and women as something less than human. Abortion became a divisive issue, late in the 19th century, at about the same time that African-American males were afforded the vote and that a second great wave of immigration began; the latter brought huge numbers of darker-skinned, Catholic, non-native speakers of English to the country and so-called nativists expressed a fear that they would be outbred. There was a eugenics movement in the early 20th century that led some to believe the U.S. should ally with Nazi Germany rather than Britain. And advocates for legalizing the birth control pill argued that it would limit reproduction among the poor.

When a country commits structural violence against its own people, as Jonathan Kozol makes clear in Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools; as Jeffrey Reiman describes in The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison: Ideology, Class, and Criminal Justice; as Scott Sernau illustrates at length in Worlds Apart: Social Inequalities in a Global Economy; as so many writers document in Thomas M. Shapiro’s Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States; and as is evident in the failure to consider unemployment a national emergency, it treats people as less than human. If, after all, the country recognized the humanity of those it stigmatizes–whether for poverty, unemployment, the color of their skin, or any other difference–it could not tolerate treating them the way it does. But it treats us so, enthusiastically and habitually.

And the United States does this even when to do so is economically damaging, meaning that stigma is more important even than prosperity. That the country has taken months to pass an extension of unemployment benefits and that it cannot even contemplate actually doing something about unemployment speaks not to the recognition of a national emergency but rather to the importance of politics as usual.

I began by pointing to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and by pointing out that I believe it is binding upon the United States. But Declaration or no, if the country recognized our humanity, it would not do this to us. And it persists. And it is proud.

Fuck the United States.